See this World: Musicians and Climate Change
Adam Corner is a regular Crack contributor and a climate change freelancer for The Guardian. With the COP21 conference taking place in Paris, here he considers artists’ potential to generate effective, unpretentious dialogue about the environment.
There’s nothing more quintessentially British than talking about the weather, but we don’t like talking about climate change quite so much. Somehow, answering a jovial “hasn’t it been mild this year?” with “yeah mate, I’ve heard that global temperatures are accelerating at an unprecedented pace and we’ll be lucky if we can get our shit together to stop the Arctic from melting” just isn’t the done thing.
The gathering of dozens of world leaders in Paris for a particularly crucial round of UN negotiations has temporarily recaptured some mainstream media attention, but for the most part, it’s easy to get through a month without giving climate change much thought.
This is pretty bizarre when you think about it – no-one under 30 gives any credence to the climate-sceptic cranks. But the problem isn’t so much that people don’t acknowledge there’s a problem. It’s just difficult to know what to say and do in response – and musicians are no exception. Beyond Thom Yorke’s occasional appearances at demos and rallies, Charlotte Church causing trouble on Question Time, and some unspeakably bad Live-Aid style clusterfucks, the ‘climate classics’ playlist offers pretty slim pickings.
But last week saw the release of what appears to be the world’s first credible climate change song via ANHONI – the new project from Antony Hegarty, which features production from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. The track, which Hegarty released in “solidarity with the climate conference in Paris”, is called 4 Degrees in reference to the level of global warming that we could experience this century if a swift transition away from coal, oil and gas doesn’t happen in the next few decades. The track puts ANHONI’s uniquely plaintive and distressed vocals to good use as she swoops through a macabre checklist of environmental destruction, while HudMo and OPN’s bombastic hi-definition soundscapes were surely designed to soundtrack the end of days.
Credibly capturing uncomfortable truths about our own ‘complicity’ in the climate story in a song, without sounding like a teeth-grindingly worthy trendy vicar, is not something many artists have been able to achieve. It’s hard enough for musicians to explicitly respond in a coherent way to any social issue. It’s much more common – and arguably more comfortable for everyone involved – for artists to claim inspiration from the social issues of the day, but to not engage with them explicitly (although two strong exceptions this year are Darkstar’s Foam Island and the Sleaford Mods’ ongoing dissection of the shitttyness of now).
But with climate change – a weirdly ephemeral and abstract type of risk, that seems to mean everything and nothing – the challenge is even tougher. There’s no easy ‘bad guy’ to pin all the blame on, and no simple solution that doesn’t involve giving ourselves a long hard stare in the mirror. So maybe it’s no surprise that our collective creative response hasn’t exactly been overwhelming so far.
"Songs and films won’t keep the coal in the ground, but they can break the weird social silence that surrounds climate change."
A new short film scored by Massive Attack’s Robert del Naja, Young Fathers and Forest Swords, and premiered in Paris this weekend, very explicitly does not avert its gaze. Opening with footage of Paris, segueing into a dystopian satire on over-consumption and hedonism, and closing with a Kurt Vonnegut quote about our collective denial and addiction to energy, it is titled La Fête est Finie (The Party Is Over). Neither ANHONI’s anti-anthem to the planet or La Fête est Finie are exactly comfortable listening or viewing. But they do manage to pull off that rare trick: maintaining artistic credibility and authenticity while unflinchingly staring down the social issue that will define this century.
For me, it’s not so much about ‘the message’ in these artists’ work – I’m not personally convinced that scaring the crap out of people with a rollcall of climatic catastrophe is necessarily the way to get people more interested in what climate change means, or how they respond to it. But the reason I’m happy to see them emerge – even despite their gloomy content – is because it is reassuring to know that other people (who I respect as artists) are thinking about it too.
Songs and films won’t keep the coal in the ground, but they can break the weird social silence that surrounds climate change. And if we’re going to use the rapidly-closing window of opportunity before us to change path, we’re going to have to start acknowledging that this problem isn’t going away, and have a much wider range of cultural voices sending out the signal that this is a conversation we all need to be part of.